A common theme on political shows when talking about Democrats is for commentators to ask: Who is the leader of the party?
What’s plainly obvious now to anyone who is paying attention—as it has been from the moment Donald Trump got elected last year—is that the People are leading. They led the protests into the streets. They led the National Women’s March. They led the Climate March after that. They’ve led local Indivisible groups, which have been instrumental in stopping the Republicans’ attack on health care access. They’ve led fundraising for Democratic hopefuls in unlikely races, like Jon Ossoff’s in Georgia. They’ve led in raising their hands to become marchers, and organizers, and then candidates. And they most certainly led in Virginia this month, flooding the field with an unusually high number of 88 candidates across the state while also turning out to vote in historic numbers.
None of this has been driven from the top. Rather, it’s been a ground-up revolution that Washington pundits just can’t seem to grasp. And none of these groups on the ground are sitting around squabbling over whether blue-collar messaging or an appeal to voters of color will be a more effective approach to engaging Americans. They don’t have time for that argument because they’re too busy trying to save their health care, protect the foundations of this country, and feed a massive blue wave next year that will give at least one chamber of Congress the ability stop Trump’s assault on our democracy.
And now there’s research being conducted at the ground level that proves exactly what Washington commentators have failed to see before their very eyes. The Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne writes about Harvard University scholar Theda Skocpol, who has been researching citizen activists in states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio.
What’s struck Skocpol is how irrelevant the Democrats’ tired quarrels are to these freshly engaged citizens. “At the grass roots, people are dealing with the crisis Trump’s presidency presents to America, and they’re not refighting the election of 2016,” she said in an interview. “They’re not talking about whether the Democratic Party should be more progressive or more centrist.”
In fact, she finds that “both Bernie [Sanders] and Hillary [Clinton] supporters are involved,” which shows how “you can have energetic citizen action that doesn’t have to sort out national labels.”
This activism, as Skocpol sees it, is motivated by a simple but powerful civic sense that Trump is violating basic norms and principles of American life. The troops on the ground don’t need programs or litmus tests imposed from on high, she adds. They need practical support and the freedom to act as they see fit in their own areas.
Democratic lawmakers and pundits need to take a cue from the grassroots and quit worrying about some uninspired overarching message like, “A better deal.” All the inspiration and energy and leadership, quite frankly, is coming from the boots on the ground. In 2020, finding a universal message that moves people to the polls in the presidential will matter. But for now, heading into the midterms, Democratic leaders should quit talking and start listening to their constituents.
The voting constituency that showed up in Virginia to give Democrat Ralph Northam a decisive nine-point win included both higher-than-expected turnout among voters of color and crossover votes from suburban whites. Both groups responded to concerns over health care, a distaste for racialized/anti-immigrant messaging, and a shared repulsion for Donald Trump.
The winning formula for 2018 is already rising up from the streets and if Democrats keep their ear to the ground, it will provide the way forward for 2020. But for now, we don’t need Washington to lead, we need it to follow.